Working Moms Winter Math Gets Tougher



The expected “triple epidemic” – a simultaneous winter surge of Covid, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus infections – promises to be tough on everyone. But spare a thought for the millions of working mothers who remain disproportionately responsible for raising children and must make room for the tripledemic in their careers.

No one can work and take care of sick children at the same time – and children often get sick. But in the world the pandemic has wrought, it’s a whole new experience, especially for those with kids under the age of 6.

For one thing, finding child care is harder than ever. Employment in the sector is still 9% lower than it was in January 2020 – a good indicator of the number of fewer places in childcare centers and preschools. And the prospects for attracting more workers aren’t great: the typical annual salary is just $27,000 a year, even though child care costs more than public universities in many states.

Even finding a place to keep your children is not a solution, thanks to the health protocols put in place since the pandemic. Temperature checks, contact screenings and symptoms of exclusion work together to ensure that children will still spend many days at home. If you search for Covid among pre-K, you will also find many other disqualifying diseases.

All of this changes what I call winter mom math: estimating how many days of work will be lost due to a child’s illness. Consider my own toddler’s experience in 2022. Since last Christmas, his teacher caught Covid (seven days lost), he had a few colds (six days lost), there was a case of Covid in his class ( five days lost), he caught Covid (10 days lost), he had hand-foot-mouth (lost five days), he had hand-foot-mouth again (lost five days), he had skin irritation that required a doctor’s note (one day wasted). Just last week he caught RSV (lost five days).

That’s already 44 of the 260 working days of the year: my two-year-old skimmed 17% before we hit Thanksgiving. My husband and I share the days, but 8.5% of lost days is not nothing. And we recently had another child.

Lost days for child care compound the barriers women already face in the office. Mothers are perceived as less competent simply because they are mothers, a bias that affects both hiring and compensation. However, if they are undoubtedly competent, they are rather perceived as cold, less sympathetic, even hostile. Certainly, if mothers choose to work less, they may be perceived as less engaged, but they usually have no choice: child care centers do not like working late and sick children do not take care of themselves. .

Add to that the lack of paid parental leave, guaranteed sick days, or subsidized childcare, and it’s no surprise that having a child in the United States is associated with a permanent drop of 20 30% of women’s total earning potential. This “maternity penalty” represents at least half of the wage gap between men and women.

In the coming months, the tripledemic will pull many working mothers out of the office for days at a stretch. Some automated out of office emails may already be in your inbox. They will miss meetings, work trips, assignments and opportunities. A request for their managers and colleagues: judge them for the work they do, not for the work they miss.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is an economist at the Rand Corp. and professor at Pardee Rand Graduate School.

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